Holiday letting companies reported to watchdog by Which? over coronavirus refunds

FIVE of the biggest holiday letting firms in the UK have been reported to the competitions regulator over fears customers have been unfairly denied refunds for cancelled trips.

Holidaymakers have been forced to postpone their stays at idyllic cottages across the country after the government imposed strict social distancing measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

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But a new investigation from Which? reveals customers have been finding it tricky to get full refunds from five firms – Sykes Holiday Cottages, Holidaycottages.co.uk, Hoseasons, Cottages.com and English Country Cottages.

The consumer champion said it has checked the terms and conditions of the holiday booking websites and found terms that could potentially be challenged as unfair under the Consumer Rights Act.

Which? said in four of the five companies’ contracts, they do not explain what the consumer’s right to a refund would be if circumstances outside of their control prevent them from being able to go on holiday.

They did, however, detail how owners of properties rented through the sites are allowed to cancel the holidays, which Which? says gives property owners "too much leeway" to keep a customer’s money if a booking is cancelled.

Your rights during the coronavirus crisis

THE Competitions and Marketing Authority (CMA) has issued a statement on its views on cancellations and refunds during the current crisis.

In most cases, the CMA would expect a full refund to be offered if:

  • A business has cancelled a contract without providing any of the promised goods or services.
  • No service is provided by a business, for example because this is prevented by restrictions that apply during the current lockdown.
  • A customer cancels, or is prevented from receiving any services, because of the restrictions that apply during the current lockdown.

For customers that have already received some, but not all, of the services they paid for, a refund should be expected for value of the goods not received, the CMA says.

However, if customers have received something of value, they would generally be expected to pay for it and will not usually be entitled to all their money back.

Ongoing contracts

Where a customer pays a fee for an ongoing service, the CMA expects refunds to be issued for:

  • Services that have already been paid for but are not provided by the business, or services that can't be used by the customer because of coronavirus restrictions. This may be a partial refund to reflect the value of the services already provided.
  • Customers will normally be allowed to withhold payment for services that are not provided, or services that can't be used by the customer because of coronavirus restrictions. 

Business may be allowed to ask for a small contribution to its costs until normal services resume, but only where the contract terms set this out clearly and fairly. 

Future contracts

Businesses can accept payments for future bookings, but only for services that it knows it can provide.

Credits and re-booking

Customers shouldn't be pressured into accepting vouchers over cash refunds from businesses.

If a credit note is received, it should be available to use under the same terms as the original booking.

Timing

The CMA says it understands that refunds may take longer than usual, but businesses should still be expected to process payments in a timely manner.

Non-refundable payments and fees

Refund rights will apply even for non-refundable services.

The CMA says businesses should also not be expected to apply an admin fee to process refunds.

How do I complain?

If you think you've been affected by an unfair cancellation during the coronavirus crisis, you can report a firm to the CMA by using this online form.

The Holidaycottages.co.uk contract was the only one to not contain the cancellation clause.

It added Hoseasons, Cottages.com and English Country Cottages also tell customers that bookings are subject to the additional terms and conditions of the property owner and that these are “available from the suppliers if you ask”.

As the other terms could only available on request, Which? believes this could also potentially be challenged as legally unfair.

One holidaymaker, Jessica Tappin, from Newport in South Wales, said she has been waiting for more than a month for a full refund from Sykes Holiday Cottages, after receiving only some of her money back.

The 25-year-old civil service worker paid £310 for a five-day break to a cottage in Cornwall with her fiance, which was later cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Jessica was meant to travel at the end of March but six weeks later, has only received £219 back as a cash refund from Sykes Holiday Cottages.

When this newspaper contacted Sykes, they said the remaining £91 had been issued as a credit note – despite The Sun pointing out that Jessica has asked for a cash refund.

Jessica also argues that this credit note has yet to appear in her account, and said the dates for her original trip are coming up at a higher price.

Which? has reported its findings with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and Jessica says she'll be waiting for the watchdog's response.

She said: "I’ve been battling with Sykes for six weeks. They’re dragging their heels – it doesn’t need to go on for this long.

"They've advised me to change the dates, but the dates have been coming up at a much higher price."

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The investigation by Which? comes after the CMA launched an investigation into unfair terms and bad practice in the UK holiday lettings sector.

A spokesman for Hoseasons, Cottages.com and English Country Cottages told Which? they were doing “everything they could” to help customers and homeowners during the pandemic.

This includes price-matched breaks for the same or equivalent date in 2021, as well as refunds in “appropriate circumstances”.

He added: “We have responded and adapted to the evolving issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as we have received new guidelines from the government.

“Following the statement from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) yesterday we have now expanded the options available to support any customers who were due to travel with us during government imposed travel restrictions and who prefer not to accept one of our vouchers.”

A spokesman for Sykes Holiday Cottages told Which? they had issued refunds to of customers who were due to travel on or before May 7 this year once after receiving consent from accommodation owners.

He added: “If that refund does not match the price originally paid, as a goodwill gesture we have applied an ex-gratia credit to customers’ Sykes Holiday Cottages accounts to represent the fees we have been paid by owners for facilitating these bookings.

“These can be used on any holidays departing within 24 months.”

The Sun has contacted all the above firms for additional comment, including Holidaycottages.co.uk, and we'll update this article if we hear back.

People everywhere have been faced with concerns about whether or not they will get a refund after flights and holidays across the world have been cancelled during the Covid-19 pandemic.

One couple told the Sun how they've been left heartbroken and out of pocket when their dream wedding was cancelled and they were unable to get a refund from British Airways.

The airline industry has been crippled by the crisis, and announced earlier this week it was to cut a quarter of its pilots.

Meanwhile Ryanair has said it expects to be flying passengers again by July.

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